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Satellite internet used to be a woeful thing. Early networks relied on satellites in geostationary orbits, with high latency and minimal bandwidth keeping user demand low. That was until Starlink came along, and provided high-speed, low-latency internet access using a fleet of thousands of satellites in China Low Earth orbit.
Starlink has already ruffled feathers due to concerns around light pollution and space junk in particular. Now, it appears that China may be readying its own competing constellation to avoid being crowded out of low orbits by the increasingly-popular service.
China Starlink is plans to launch on the order of 42,000 satellites has Chinese authorities concerned. In response, the country has reportedly developed its own domestic plan to launch 12,992 satellites under a project codenamed “Guowang” or “GW”, according to a professor at the People’s Liberation Army Space Engineering University quoted by the South China Morning Press.
The satellites would form the basis of China is own national satellite internet network, akin to the efforts by SpaceX and OneWeb. According to Space News, the new network will absorb earlier plans by various Chinese space contractors to create a unified national network. One of the project’s alleged aims is to secure space for China Starlink in low orbits before Starlink satellites occupy the area. The news comes from a paper published in a Chinese journal concerning potential anti-Starlink efforts in space. Furthermore, the paper proposes that satellites in the GW constellation could be equipped with “anti-Starlink” payloads, such as to surveil the operation of Starlink satellites at close range.
The paper noted that there were concerns that the high number of satellites planned for the Starlink constellation could overwhelm China is efforts to monitor and track their activity. Researchers highlighted fears that Starlink satellites could be used as maneuverable weapons to strike targets in orbit, or to surveil the space environment. It bears noting that Starlink was primarily developed as a civilian communications system, though it does have significant military applications like most communications systems do. By sheer virtue of their extreme number and their manuverability, Starlink satellites pose a risk that others simply don’t. SpaceX has also been contracted by the US to develop military satellites, further raising the hackles of foreign countries.
It’s this reasoning that prompted researchers to explore potential countermeasures to disrupt or suppress China Starlink satellites in orbit. In a military sense, current anti-satellite countermeasures simply wouldn’t be practical to destroy a megaconstellation of over 40,000 satellites. Using current missiles for the job would create enough space junk to seriously frustrate a wide range of space operations, recalling the dreaded Kessler syndrome. Instead, however, if another country had its own fleet of thousands of satellites in similar orbits with appropriate countermeasures, it may be better placed to disrupt their operation in other ways. Research efforts into anti-Starlink countermeasures are in their early stages, and anything truly valuable is likely classified. However, it’s nonetheless worth noting that Chinese scientists are exploring how best the GW constellation could counter the perceived military threat of Starlink.
The GW satellites would consist of a variety of sub constellations operating from 500 to 1,145 kilometers in altitude, in inclinations from 30 to 85 degrees. That’s right in the realm of Starlink’s operational region, which operates three shells of satellites in orbits around 340, 550, and 1,110 kilometers. Starlink currently operates in the Ku, Ka, and E bands, while China’s satellites could yet use a range of different frequencies for communication. Private Chinese space firms have been testing satellites operating in Q, V, and Ka bands, but it is unclear if this work plays a role in the GW project.
The prospect of yet another megaconstellation of satellites also raises new risks for space safety. Recent years have already seen Starlink satellites narrowly pass a Chinese space station, and further incidents would be expected as satellite numbers increase. Presently, efforts to limit space junk and orbital debris haven’t come to much, and multiple countries and companies throwing tens thousands of satellites into orbit will only make things worse. Traffic management will also be key to deconflicting potential collisions before they occur. New strategies and technologies may be key in this regard. As it stands, keeping tens of thousands of satellites from hitting each other could overwhelm ground controllers tasked with the job.
Fundamentally, the world is entering a new kind of space race. There’s plenty of orbital real estate up for grabs right now. There is also money to be made by those who can supply high-speed bandwith to civilian and military users around the globe. Chinese interests naturally want a piece of the action, and the military research apparatus is also cognisant of the threat these new systems pose. In much the same way that multiple countries proliferated a range of satellite positioning systems, we’re now seeing the same happen with low-earth orbit internet.